One of the ugly truths about baseball is that everyone doesn’t get an equal shot at succeeding.
This is true at every level, from youth summer leagues through the upper minors, but is especially true in the big leagues. Margin for error is low. There are jobs and entire organizational power structures on the line. Even those that get a shot don’t necessarily get enough of a shot to grow into the best baseball version of themselves. Not everyone is Stephen Strasburg.
Kansas City Royals history is littered with guys who got a shot but didn’t ever get enough playing time to truly get their shot, so to speak. Johnny Giavotella, second round draft pick, never played more than 53 games in a single season as a Royal, accruing a paltry 125 games over four seasons in Kansas City before getting the boot. Kila Ka’aihue, giant first baseman who tore the cover off the ball in AA and AAA, played a combined 87 games in Kansas City across four seasons when the Royals willingly gave Willie Bloomquist, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Josh Anderson extended playing time.
And Jose Martinez? The Royals took one look at the even giant-er first baseman/outfielder and his .384 batting average in his first stint in AAA and said, ‘Nah. We’re good.’ They promptly traded him to St. Louis for a sack of stinky provel cheese and watched as Martinez eclipsed the 90th percentile of all MLB hitters in offensive value over the past two-plus seasons.
Would Giavotella and Ka’aihue succeeded if they got a few hundred games over a few seasons under their belt? It’s entirely possible that they would not have done so. But we’ll never know - they didn’t get a legit chance.
The same, however, can’t be said for Cheslor Cuthbert. The Royals gave him his shot. They are continuing to give him his shot. But one of the other biggest ugly truths in baseball is that, even when given a legitimate shot, some guys just can’t cut it at the highest level of their sport.
Let’s be clear: Cuthbert is better at baseball than you are or will be at anything. He is wildly talented, driven, and has made a few million bucks doing exactly what he loves for a profession. The act of stepping into a big league clubhouse is a gigantic achievement. When he debuted, Cuthbert was the 18,556th player to get to the big leagues, which sounds like a big number until you consider the hundreds of millions of humans who have ever played baseball since the MLB’s inception over a century ago. It’s a small club.
So it is with no ill will towards Cuthbert or the Royals when I say that his time as a Royal should probably be coming to an end soon. The reason is that, ultimately, position players can only provide value through hitting or fielding, offense or defense, and Cuthbert struggles mightily on both ends.
Cuthbert has played a total of 234 baseball games across four seasons in Kansas City. For two of those seasons, he has been a regular in the lineup. In 2016, Cuthbert became the Royals everyday third baseman after Mike Moustakas’ injury, playing 128 games. This year, Cuthbert has played in 29 of the Royals’ 40 games, playing at a combination of third base, designated hitter, and first base; he is on pace to play 117 games in 2018, nearly as many as he did in 2016. And with 827 career plate appearances, Cuthbert has stepped to the plate enough to draw some serious conclusions.
Those conclusions aren’t good. Cuthbert’s career triple slash is .253/.305/.381, good for a .686 on base plus slugging percentage (OPS). If that sounds bad, it is; by weighted runs created plus (wRC+), which compares a player to a league average offensive player after controlling for park effects, Cuthbert has hit 17% worse than league average over his career.
Now, an 83 wRC+ is not a death knell for productivity, but it must be balanced by other factors, those being speed and defense. Cuthbert doesn’t make up for his poor hitting via speed, as according to Fangraphs’ Base Running metric he has cost his team 6.2 runs on the basepaths. Furthermore, defensive metrics are extraordinarily unkind to Cuthbert. Ultimate Zone Rating pegs Cuthbert at -5.8 runs at third base over his career, and Defensive Runs Saved is worse at -10 runs.
By Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, Cuthbert has been ‘worth’ -0.2 WAR over his career. Baseball-Reference has him at -0.4 WAR.
An ode to Cheslor Cuthbert's defense pic.twitter.com/jjTVEwI9Za— Shaun Newkirk (@Shauncore) June 26, 2017
The error bars for WAR are often overlooked—a 2.5-win player is not definitively better than a 2-win player, for instance—and WAR is not meant to dispel all arguments about a player’s worth. But Cuthbert’s unsightly WAR makes sense, and is bad enough to be conclusive. By MLB standards, he’s a bad hitter, a bad base runner, and a bad defender at a non-premium position.
Cuthbert, of course, can turn it around. He is still only 25, the same age as ‘youngsters’ Eric Skogland, Cam Gallagher, and Jake Junis. His minor league history shows a player who tends to initially struggle at each new level.
Except...Cuthbert isn’t Giavotella or Ka’aihue. Cuthbert has gotten a pretty good shot. And at some point, you’ve got to consider that the guy creeping up on 1000 plate appearances and significant opportunity to prove himself might just be bad. Since the start of 2017, Cuthbert’s triple slash is .220/.283/.320 over a not-insignificant 267 plate appearances. That’s pretty much unplayable for a guy who can’t compensate for the lack of offense with defense or baserunning.
Calling for Cuthbert’s head now would be silly. The Royals aren’t competing for a playoff spot, and so devoting more resources to a struggling young player is pretty much exactly the sort of leeway that bad teams can and should freely utilize because it is without repercussions.
The thing is, the Royals have multiple guys itching for their own shots. As soon as Hunter Dozier’s power stroke comes back, he can easily fill Cuthbert’s exact spot on the roster. And while Ryan O’Hearn can’t fill Cuthbert’s backup third base duties, O’Hearn can comfortably fill Cuthbert’s first base and designated hitter duties as soon as his own power stroke returns.
One of the ugly truths about baseball is that everyone doesn’t get an equal shot at succeeding. It’s just sad when the unproven guy is blocked by a proven guy who happens to not be good. Unless Cuthbert can transform himself into something he hasn’t been, his roster spot will probably be better used for someone else.